Lift your arm straight out in front of you. Make it just as tight as you can. Contract every muscle. Now, let go of all the tension you can, without letting the arm fall. Let go of everything but the functional tension your arm needs to stay up. Take three slow breaths, inhaling and exhaling. Then let it come down. Pause for a moment and try the other side. 

Now, contract your face. Close your eyes and make your face as tight as can be. Imagine you’re worried, upset, or angry. Now, without altering the basic outlines of your face, begin to feel the same way you did when you relaxed your arm. Keep your face the same (scrunched up), but let all the extraneous tension out. Notice when you let it all go. Can you hear the sounds outside more clearly? Can you take in more?

It’s very rare for our body to hold only the tension it needs to keep functioning. See if you can observe your body during the day. If you have a minute between tasks, take a look and see what tension you’re holding. Most of the time, we’re doing what we’re doing, and we’ve added tension. It may be almost imperceptible or it may be very, very noticeable. 

Of course, we need to have enough tension to do whatever we’re doing. If we’re holding a cup of coffee, there has to be some tension to hold the cup up, or the coffee will spill. If you’re sitting up, you need some functional tension or you fall over. But the only time the body is really freed from that kind of tension is when you’re flat on your back.

Life is a very simple matter. We’re just doing what we’re doing. But we add extra tension all the time. If you stop and feel your face, you’ll notice it’s usually a little bit tight. We don’t need that tension. We have a face; we don’t need to have an extra face. A Rinzai Zen master once said, “Add no head above your own.”

We’re hardly ever operating with just the functional level of tension. Even if you don’t know what your automatic habits are, you probably know how they feel. Our unconscious habits and reactions make us rigid. Our bodies get tight. We may even get sick.

Functioning is what Zen practice is all about. Our practice is to function according to the demands of life, not according to our personal agenda for what we think life should be: “I want this.” “I’m nervous about this.” “Maybe that meeting won’t go right.” “Maybe they won’t like me.” Every time you have a thought like that, tension builds up in your body. A thought—poof! Tension—up, up, up. Nobody who is human is entirely free of it. But, as the need for life to be a certain way eventually leaves us, the tension slowly releases, and we are more and more free. The more our practice matures, the more the body is free of anything but functional tension. It has taken me decades for my body to be naturally relaxed most of the time.

Get back to the body. The thoughts are repetitive; they just go round and round and round. You aren’t going to lose a thing if you just let them be for a moment. They’ll all be back. 

Our difficulties are so important in our life. They remind us to pay attention. When something hits our life hard, it goes through our body like a jolt. We feel some discomfort. Our true experience is in there, but it’s mixed up with our opinions, judgments, and worries concerning how it should be.

Someone who was new to sitting practice once complained to me, “This practice is not making me feel good.” If you need something to make you feel good, practice is not much help. But if we just experience the pain, without thinking and overthinking, the pain transforms. Nothing stays painful forever. Not at all. And when we experience the pain and the challenges fully, they don’t stay as long. They lessen. Because so much of our pain is in trying not to feel it.

When we experience that pain without thinking, judging, or hiding, then it begins to slowly fade. It changes. If you get your mind out of the way, the pain can start to dissolve. It opens up, and finally it just disappears. It’s a different way of living. It takes a lot of daily sitting to keep the courage available to do this kind of work. The discipline, the bravery, and the consistency of sitting regularly builds our ability to experience our true lives.

Get back to the body. The thoughts are repetitive; they just go round and round and round. You aren’t going to lose a thing if you just let them be for a moment.

How do you stay with the pain? You stay with it as long as you can, and inevitably, you’ll drift off. You might stay with the pain for two or five seconds at first, and then you’ll drift—because you want to drift. But when you do it and keep sitting every day, the ability to stay with it increases, and sometimes, all of a sudden, you’ll find you’re staying with it for ten or thirty seconds. When you get up to thirty seconds, it’s a different world. And it’s not a matter of virtue whether you stay with it or not. It isn’t good or bad. We do the best we can; that’s all we can ever do. Nothing we do is wasted if we’re aware of it.

Nobody likes anguish. But the idea that there’s some other way across the bridge from unreality to reality besides going across it is really an illusion. Americans are good at unreality. Our whole culture is based on trying to alter our reality. It hurts—well, go buy a new dress. It hurts—get a new partner. It hurts—take a pill. We have dozens and dozens of ways to cover that hurt. And, because we live in a society that has so much stuff, in general, those ways are much more available to us than to people in earlier or less affluent societies. 

Even for practitioners, usually when we’re feeling some hurt, the mind is going, “It’s so bad. I’m suffering so hard. It shouldn’t be like this for me. And oh, yes, I’m experiencing it.” That’s not experiencing—that’s thinking. When we label our thoughts and go back to the body, we are actually splitting off our thinking so we see it’s just thinking. When we do that, we’re able to see the difference between thinking and sensation. If somebody hurts my feelings, my body gets rigid. My face gets tight. If I just stay there, I may be able to notice the difference between my thoughts and my sensations—and this is the path that alleviates anguish.

I use the word anguish because that’s how most people think of it when they are completely caught up in their thinking-based resistance to reality. In the way I use that word, experiencing cannot involve anguish because there’s no thinking. And that’s a very important difference. They’re always mixing their sensations up with their thinking about the other person, about what happened, about what’s wrong. That’s the drama. If you don’t sit every day, you’re really not doing yourself any favors. Sitting is what builds that ability.

Sitting can be very stark and plain some days. I have that thought, and I have that thought and that thought and that thought. I just return again and again to whatever is going on. You just do it and do it and do it. There’s an inward shift, a maturing that takes place that enables us, when something really does happen in our lives, to do this kind of practice. For the person who doesn’t practice regularly, you think you’re dealing with anguish. But you’re not. You’re dealing with thoughts plus body sensations.

Look at the thoughts first, and then just stay with the body sensations. Then you can’t use the word anguish. If I poked my hand, it would be painful. It’s only when I add commentary—”Oh, isn’t this awful? You know this shouldn’t be happening to me.”—that the sensation turns to anguish. Otherwise, it just is what it is. I still take care of it. I still ease the pain. But I’m not in anguish.

Excerpted from Ordinary Wonder: Zen Life and Practice, by Charlotte Joko Beck, edited by Brenda Beck Hess © 2021. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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